Bangkok, one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities and Asia's premier tourist mecca, is bracing for a planned "shutdown" of the city next Monday by a splinter opposition group that has run a series of protests garnering crowds of 150,000 people at times over the past two months.
The political temperature in this coolest of seasons in Thailand is now rising quickly as months of shadow boxing come to a head. The big questions for many weeks have been: will it blow up, and if so how?
The rabble-rousing group -- the rather hubristically named People’s Democratic Reform Committee, led by former Democrat Party deputy Suthep Thaugsuban -- has promised to seize 20 key intersections in the capital, cut water and power supplies to key government buildings and bring traffic and logistics to a halt. Tourists, including thousands of the 1 million or so Australians who visit the country each year, are beginning to desert Bangkok during its peak holiday season. Hotels, particularly at the higher end, are holding unseasonal discount wars, and taxi drivers -- the hoary bellwether -- are complaining about business. There is less bustle than usual in the vast shopping malls that dot the metropolis, although destinations outside the capital seem largely unaffected -- so far.
The hatches are being battened down. The government has promised to deploy at least 15,000 police; 146 schools in 26 districts around the country are already slated to be closed; telecommunication providers are making contingency plans to minimise the risk of mobile and internet network congestion; and retailers are stocking up on goods -- although the country's faltering stock market will remain open for trading.
The PDRC, rather ironically, wants the democratically elected government (the voting margin is roughly 14 million to 11 million) replaced with a council of elders, for want of a better term. Yet they would not represent the poorer northern rural Thais who now effectively control Parliament, having voted in the winning party each time elections have been held since 1996. The protesters have already forced the government into calling an election on February 2, but this is not enough; neither the PDRC nor the main opposition Democratic Party will contest the poll, making certain that political unrest won’t stop there. All efforts by the government to holds talks about reform measures have been spurned so far.
During the protests the government and the military -- traditionally on opposing political sides, but the lines have blurred in recent years -- have so far shown uncommon restraint in a country that has had 19 coups d’etat since World War II (it has been eight years since the last). This reflects the opinion of most regular people in Thailand: they are sick of the cycle of violence, yet the polity appears to be no further down the track of having any concrete ideas as to how to stop it.
The army has gone to unusual lengths to make it clear that it desperately does want to step in -- it learned a bitter lesson after the 2006 coup. But now the talk in Bangkok newspapers and buzzing social media is once again of military intervention.
"The stalemate is, in effect, a battle for control between the established Bangkok-based elite and the upstart newer-monied cliques of billionaire former PM Thaksin Shinawatra ..."
The stalemate is, in effect, a battle for control between the established Bangkok-based elite and the upstart newer-monied cliques of billionaire former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, a policeman-turned-telecoms mogul who has lived in exile since 2006 and has been committed to prison on corruption-related charges. From his base in Dubai, he still pulls strings of the governing Pheu Thai party, led by his relatively inexperienced sister, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Suthep Thaugsuban himself is a corrupt millionaire whose dodgy land reforms brought down the government of Chuan Leekpai in 1995, leading to Thaksin's rise. He has recast himself, somewhat unconvincingly, as the poster child for "change", leading popular marches rooted in the pan-Democrats southern support base demanding largely unarticulated "reform" of the Thai political system and, in particular, the banishment of the Shinawatra family. The trigger for him being able to do this was November’s ham-fisted amnesty bill the government attempted to force through Parliament, which would have absolved all those responsible for the bouts of violence in 2008 and 2010, paving the way for Thaksin’s return -- an event many even in his own party now understand is a step too far.
Hovering over this increasingly delicate political environment is the sprawling royal family, led by its much revered but frail and ageing monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej, a delicate subject in a country where "lese-majeste" laws prevents open discussion of regal matters in any detail.
Protesters that Crikey
spoke to in a huge march before Christmas appeared to know what they don’t want -- the Shinawatras -- but struggled to articulate what they do. Many others, particularly young people, simply want the country's leaders to put aside their power games and get on with improving education, healthcare and living conditions in a country aching for decent infrastructure where average annual wages sit below $6000 a year .
Yet violence is always just around the corner. Five people have been killed and a few hundred injured in two incidents during otherwise peaceful protests so far. And as demonstrated by 2010's bloody protests, during which 90 people were killed, things can get worse very quickly.
In the meantime, Thailand’s export-based economy, already in the doldrums as the global recovery has stuttered, is suffering self-inflicted damage. Attempting to haul itself out of the slump, the central bank has cut interest rates to stimulate spending. But the protests have hit Thailand where it hurts -- in its super-charged tourist sector -- and the political unrest has delayed an ambitious multitrillion-baht program of new national transport links. Economists are cutting back economic growth forecasts, and foreign investors are increasingly wary of mounting sovereign risk.
So once again, Thailand finds itself trapped in a conundrum of its own making. Blessed with nature’s abundance -- arable land, underground resources, plentiful water and relatively protected from tropical storms -- it has hundreds of tourist-friendly beaches, islands, mountains, forests and temples. Yet its populace cannot reach a consensus on how to move the nation forward
As its elites battle for the soul of the divided country, it is Thailand’s famously smiling people who suffer.